At some point in my work, I hear a recurrent belief or thought that surfaces for my clients. It’s the belief that tends to wreak havoc on my client’s psyche, the one that’s been with them since childhood. Most people are so fused with this false belief that they can’t even hear it. It’s like the news banner that runs across the bottom of the TV screen: you know it’s there and you subconsciously absorb the information but you don’t give it much thought. In other words, it’s always in the background, like a running commentary.
Sadly, this running commentary isn’t usually something positive and self-affirming like, “You’re a beautiful, loving person. You deserve love. You are worthy, kind and smart.” On the contrary, the most common running commentaries are rooted in fear-based lies that develop in early childhood as a way to protect the core self from the potentially shattering truth that ones’ caregivers are incapable of giving you the kind of love and attention that you needed. In other words, instead of telling yourself, “My mother isn’t capable of meeting my needs because she’s too wounded,” which would be devastating for a young child to assimilate, you told yourself, “If I’m perfect – if I’m beautiful enough or smart enough or competent enough – I will get the love I need.”
This false belief then creates the illusion of control, which has to be dismantled once the ego is strong enough to handle the truth about ones’ primary caregivers. The illusion of control is a lifeline for a young child because it creates the belief that your actions can alter your mother’s or father’s behavior. And sometimes this false belief was validated: if your father’s love, for example, was conditional upon you receiving good grades in school, then your illusion was confirmed: receiving love is dependent on my perfect achievements. This can be even more difficult to dismantle as an adult because there’s a powerful part of you that truly believes the veracity of this statement.
The first step in dismantling the false beliefs is to become aware of them. For most people, the beliefs are so intimately fused with their unconscious that they don’t even know they exist. In other words, the beliefs become the default position that informs nearly every action of their lives without conscious and informed consent. Some of the most common running commentaries are:
- I’m not a good person.
- No one likes me.
- Things aren’t going to work out.
- I’m not capable of love.
- I’m a horrible person.
- I’m doing it wrong.
- I’m not worthy of love.
- I have to be perfect in order to receive love.
- I’m flawed.
These beliefs are often heard internally in the third person and, thus, could be written like this:
- You’re not a good person.
- No one likes you.
- Things aren’t going to work out.
- You’re not capable of love.
- You’re a horrible person.
- You’re doing it wrong.
- You’re not worthy of love.
- You have to be perfect in order to receive love.
- You’re flawed.
Carrying these beliefs causes unavoidable pain. Most clients say it’s like having a taskmaster sitting on one of their shoulders, constantly criticizing, never satisfied. But that’s only how they describe it once they become aware of its existence! Again, the first, and, in some ways, most challenging, step in healing is developing a witness to the commentary. This process of noticing, developing a witness, and de-fusing from the beliefs can take months, if not longer. It’s often a struggle to remember to pay attention to what’s occurring in the silent and invisible inner world of psyche, especially when life keeps most people moving too quickly to listen inside.
In some ways, however, it’s beneficial to encourage the process to unfold slowly. Because these false beliefs take root in early childhood and become fused with one’s true self, extracting them too quickly can cause emotional collapse. I often imagine that the beliefs are like a boa constrictor spiraling around the radiance of the core self. The constriction is so long-standing that it becomes fused to the core and when it’s ripped away too quickly, the core self loses part of its structure and collapses. This can lead to depression and despair.
After becoming de-fused and developing the witness, the healthy process is one of pulling out the faulty beliefs by the roots while simultaneously strengthening the core self. Over the course of several months or years, as the lies are replaced with loving truths using a dialoguing process or other effective tools, the serpent naturally crumbles and the true self emerges victorious. Again, this can take time and patience is required. When the shame-based self realizes that its defense system is fading, it usually rears up with renewed force. This is the cycle of healing: phases of deep connection to the core self followed by a resurgence of the fearful self. We heal in layers and spirals; the process is not linear.
This is also a process of transition, for as you allow the shame-based self and its accompanying beliefs to die, you make room for the birth of new ways of being and thinking. Many people experience this is a death and, as most are resistant to change of any kind (even when its positive and life-affirming), they will resist letting go of the familiar. For it must be stated that the shame-based self, with all of its negative thoughts and outdated protection systems, is as comfortable and familiar as a well-worn sweater: it’s full of holes and no longer functional but it’s hard to let it go. As you release the running commentary that has guided your life, be prepared to grieve its loss. Only then will you be able to embrace the new stage of life that awaits you.